Everyone is wondering whether this sermon will be about the elephant in the room. So, I might as well name it. We have experienced a hugely stressful election season. The campaign included moments that, just a few short years ago, we’d not be able to concoct or imagine. Finally, a candidate has prevailed, though he isn’t the candidate some would have chosen. He is flawed. His age makes us uncomfortable. He gets on the couch even though he knows he’s not allowed. He chases the cat incessantly. I am, of course, referring to the hard-fought mayoral race in the town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, which so mesmerized the nation these past weeks. Rabbit Hash election officials have, as of this morning, called the race, and the new mayor is a six-month old French bulldog named Wilbur. It turns out Rabbit Hash, Kentucky has a habit of electing dogs. Wilbur succeeds Mayor Brynn, a pit bull who served from 2016-2020. Describing Wilbur’s transition plans, campaign manager and dog owner Amy Noland says of the mayor-elect, “He’s done a lot of interviews locally, he’s had a lot of pets, a lot of belly scratches and a lot of ear rubs.”[i]
Humor is a blessed, momentary relief from the crush of emotions that have accompanied, and continue to accompany, not only this election but our national, civic life on the whole. The past five days have simply compressed all of those emotions into a much narrower wavelength, so that people across the political aisle have experienced the oscillation of joy and heartbreak, fear and relief, in such quick succession that we are exhausted. As I stand before you, I myself have gotten precious little restful sleep in the past week.
At a cocktail party just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I heard someone ask with regard to our national circumstance, “Why can’t we just get along?” The speaker intentionally borrowed his words from Rodney King, and it is a tantalizing hope: Why can’t we, despite our deep differences and the vitriol that infects our shared life, just get along? But the question too often really means something like, “Why can’t the world just stay the way it is: comfortable for me? Why can’t others simply acquiesce to my preferred vision for our country? Then we would all get along.”
We recognize the inadequacy of the request when we take a moment to remember the heartrending circumstances in which Rodney King first uttered those words. They weren’t, for him, superficial. He had been beaten by police officers and in the weeks thereafter, as he was pushed and pulled and manhandled anew in the media, his cry was as the Psalmist’s, “How long, Lord? How long?”[ii]
We can’t just all get along, not in the superficial sense, because there are competing visions for the United States that undergird our disagreements. Those visions are important. When he spoke here a couple of years ago, Episcopalian and author John Meacham said it is as if various people and parties are competing for the soul of America. When the stakes are that high, pretending that they don’t exist or don’t matter is not an option. So, what are we to do?
Our church—the Episcopal Church—actually grants us resources that many other traditions lack. Henry VIII’s desire for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent sequence of events involving both church and state in sixteenth century England led to civic rancor, factions, broken relationships, and many gruesome deaths. Tudor England bears more than a few rough analogies to our own time. In the late 1550s, after the English people had exhausted themselves with mutual recrimination and disdain, the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, through force of her healing character, said “Enough!” She established a new norm that provided for a wide latitude of belief and practice, both religious and civic, and declared that, going forward, the English people would, no matter what, stand together as one nation. From then on in English religious and national life, schism—walking away, walking apart—became a greater and graver sin than heresy. In other words, the English people would commit to work together, in shared identity, through any challenge. Their disagreements would be real and hard-fought, but they would not break communion with one another. The English only forgot this once after that, and the English Civil War a century later quickly reminded them of Elizabeth’s wisdom. And this served England exceptionally well in the intervening half-millennia. I dare say, without Elizabeth in 1559, a unified England could not have withstood Hitler in 1940.
In our own context, the motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, “From many, we are One.” The motto appears on our currency, our passports, and the official seals of all three branches of our federal government. In the past few weeks, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has honed in on this. Bishop Curry traces the origin of E Pluribus Unum to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero. In the year 44 B.C., Cicero wrote a letter to his son outlining the obligations of one who loves his country. Cicero said, “Unus fiat ex pluribus,” which translates, “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”[iii]
Imagine that. Our national motto isn’t about rugged individualism. It isn’t about wishing everyone else would get on board with my vision for the country. It is ultimately about love. E Pluribus Unum. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”
How do we do that? We don’t give up our convictions, or our unflagging efforts to mold our nation into a “more perfect union.”[iv] But we do remember that we are bound together in love with every one of our fellow Americans. Every one. Even with those with whom we disagree. Even those whose opinions we believe are deeply misguided.
Our culture, including and especially social media, encourages us to react to one another with knee-jerk shibboleths in response to someone else’s opinion: “Socialism!” “Fascism!” “You want to take my healthcare!” “You want to take my guns!” But what humility might each one of us discover if we push back against our visceral reactions and put on lenses that seek to see the other in the most positive light? What avenues for understanding might appear if we resist imputing the worst motives to our neighbors? How might our conversations track differently if we begin by granting that the person with whom we speak hopes for a United States that strives for the well-being of all?
I am not naïve. Not everyone has virtuous motives, not everyone around the water cooler and not everyone in the halls of power. But I believe that most—the overwhelming majority—do, including those whose political opinions baffle and discomfit me. And if they do—if they, like me, want for love of all to render One out of Many—then there is still gracious and ample room to speak together, walk together, and work together toward making the United States a light to other nations.
We will have a new president in January and likely a new chapter of shared government between the parties. This grants us new opportunity, if we will be open to it. Each American, from wherever one stands across the political spectrum, can and should argue vociferously over competing visions, laboring tirelessly for justice and a truer approximation of God’s kingdom on earth. If, in the process, we commit to walking and working together, then the outcome won’t be entirely one vision or the other but something in between. (There used to be a name for that in American politics…) And yet, the fact that we have made the effort committed to one another is itself an in-breaking of God’s kingdom. We must never forget that.
We, here, are Anglicans, and as such our religious life has for five hundred years been bound up with civic life. And so, perhaps we have eyes to see the way in which Cicero’s words precedingly echo Jesus’ own. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes One out of Many.” At the end of the day, then, E Pluribus Unum is its own call to follow in our civic life as in the life of Joshua and the Israelites today, the lure of God’s love instead of any national idol placed before us. Joshua says to the people today, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Beyond any political election, that is the real choice always before us. In our visions for America, but also in the ways we interact one with another and define or seek to understand those with whom we disagree, do we serve the Lord of love? In this household of faith, the answer is clear. And that gives me hope on this day of Resurrection. Amen.
[ii] Psalm 13
[iv] Preamble to the United States Constitution